A show based on a novel written in the past, ostensibly set in the near future, but really about today — “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a haunting confluence of tenses. It’s also one of the best shows of the year so far, at times hard to watch but impossible to ignore.
The series revolves around a woman known as Offred (Elisabeth Moss), who is one of the few fertile women left in the nation of Gilead, a fundamentalist dystopia where the birth rate is dismal and women have been stripped of all rights. Offred serves as a “vessel” for a high-ranking Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski), but still remembers her old life as an American citizen and a free woman, prior to the rise of the new regime. While she can’t let go of her memories, especially those of the husband (O. T. Fagbenle) and daughter (Jordana Blake) she’s lost, she also refuses to let this cruel world crush her.
The premise is like a slap in the head from author Margaret Atwood (who actually makes a cameo appearance in the first episode, as one of the Aunts who exert brutal authority over the Handmaids), in an era when basic human rights feel more under attack than ever. And in the first three episodes, showrunner Bruce Miller’s adaptation of the original text, coupled with the direction of Reed Morano, give the story vitality and power in a way that truly gets under your skin, a way that feels genuinely essential.
Morano’s direction (she headed up the first three episodes) creates a cinematic style for the series that keeps it addictive, while utilizing quiet moments in a way that makes them shout on screen. Not that the show avoids making noise — there are some truly genius music cues, which range from profound and powerful to legitimately hilarious.
Where “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes alive, beyond its well-earned moments of levity, is in the details that go unexplained: The Bible kept under lock and key, the ever-present soldiers armed with machine guns, the red tags on the ears of each Handmaid, marking them like cattle.
But it also owes a tremendous amount to Moss as its star. While all the actors are operating at the top of their game, the demands of her role are massive, given how much she, as an actor, has to communicate silently without revealing too much about what the character really thinks. Fortunately, Moss gives a performance that is both figuratively and literally in your face (at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, she remarked that at times Morano would be so close to her that when Moss leaned forward, she’d bump the camera with her head). There’s nowhere for her to escape as a performer, but Moss shows no signs of fearing the challenge. Rather, she fully commands each and every moment, every swallowed emotion and thought.
The original novel is primarily a first-person tale narrated by Offred, and the show’s clean and spare use of voice-over pays tribute to its source. There have been alterations to the story, but not massive ones, and all of them made in service to expanding the world, making it bigger. The series takes advantage of its freer structure, unconfined to Offred’s point-of-view, to enhance the other stories happening around her. On a narrative level, “Handmaid” is at times at its most innovative when it’s tracking characters who otherwise might have been lost, exploring in more detail just all of the factors which led to the fall of America and the rise of Gilead.
On that latter score, in fact, the show makes full use of this opportunity to heighten the nature of the fertility crisis which, we discover, was instrumental in the political crisis which created this world. The haunting shots of empty maternity wards communicates so much about how possible this world could be, thanks to that sort of terror.
Not that you have to tell women anything about terror. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a narrative that’s had a lot of different labels and genres assigned to it, and technically the most applicable one is speculative fiction. But that ultimately doesn’t feel accurate. This is a horror story, except the horror isn’t rooted in fantasy or gore. The human spirit is the victim here — and the word human is used deliberately there, because when we delineate genders, the resulting opportunity to “other” that which is not in power is what creates the monster.
Because here is something important to understand: So many women are always a little bit scared. It’s not always the first thing on our minds, this fear, but thanks to society, especially right now, we can’t escape it. It’s not just walking alone in the dark with our keys laced through our fingers, preparing for attacks. It’s reading the news every day, crying for women who can’t get the health care they need, or discovering that their sexual harassment claims have no impact on the conglomerate which seeks to protect their on-camera talent, or any of the hundred other ways society tries to put us “in our place.”
“Could ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ really happen?” isn’t the question anymore. The question is now “Is it already happening?” Are we seeking any reason to separate and isolate those who are different, who might not fit in? Are we letting fear make us less free?
The series was officially greenlit a year ago, a comparatively saner time. How fortunate it is, that it’s arrived when we need it most, to shout about what’s lying under the surface every day, to make us feel heard.
Women are scared. And we finally have a show that expresses why that is. Blessed be the fruit.
The first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesday, April 26 on Hulu.